Wednesday, October 31, 2018

31 Days of Dread--Day 31

McKamey Manor; 2007-present; directed by Russ McKamey
Haunters: The Art of the Scare: 2017: written and directed by Jon Schnitzer

In operation since 2007--originally in San Diego, now relocated to Nashville, Tennessee and Huntsville, Alabama--McKamey Manor has become known for its extreme "emotional torture" experience.

How to describe what goes on inside those quotation marks? Visitors to McKamey Manor are led through a fairly typical-looking haunted house environment, but that's where the resemblance to anything put on by your local Jaycees chapter ends. 

They're accompanied by a gang of costumed characters who look like they might be members of the Insane Clown Posse after an especially rough night. The characters tie down guests, threaten them with power tools, cover them in disgusting substances (and often, stick them in their mouths), douse them with cold water, place live bugs and spiders on their faces, and in general bully and manhandle them into submission when they don't do as they're told.

People scream and cry, tremble and vomit, plead for mercy and their lives. Occasionally they zone out and take on the thousand-yard stare of torture victims. Through it all you don't get the impression they're acting, but that the emotional distress and breakdowns we're seeing are real.

And Russ McKamey is right there during the whole thing, cajoling and taunting his victims to accept just a little more abuse, like the world's meanest BDSM dominant. He also records the experience, most of it in extreme close-up.

There's more than a bit of the drill sergeant in Russ's demeanor. Also, the frustrated auteur. The recordings he makes are later edited into surprisingly sophisticated videos--each essentially a commercial for McKamey Manor--that occasionally last four hours or more.

Who exactly signs up for this sort of thing? A lot of people, apparently. McKamey Manor boasts a waiting list with 24,000 names. And for the privilege of being accepted, guests pay only in dog for Russ's dogs.

In interviews peppered throughout the videos, the guests make it clear they're fine and their experience in the Manor was completely consensual, a way to push their limits and see what they can take that no one, ever, should even consider trying themselves. Which, to a certain type of person, only makes it that much more appealing.

I was introduced to McKamey Manor in a documentary on Netflix titled Haunters: The Art of the Scare. (From which the trailer, above, is taken.) It was also recently featured on an episode of Dark Tourist, on Netflix as well. And Russ's videos--hundreds of them--are available on YouTube and its web site. (I would have posted one of those, but for some reason McKamey Manor doesn't allow its videos to be played on outside sites.)

If you're one of those people for whom torture porn is just a little too tame, a visit to McKamey Manor might be in order.

McKamey Manor videos are available on YouTube and at; Haunters: The Art of the Scare and Dark Tourist are available on Netflix


If you've been reading these recommendations over the past month, thanks so much for stopping by. I hope you found something that made your October a little more enjoyable. Have a scary and happy Halloween!

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Dream Theater: Donald Trump Sings the Hits!

Photo from
I was sitting at home, watching Saturday Night Live. I shouldn't have been doing that, because Donald Trump was hosting again. What made it even worse is that he was also the show's musical guest.

Donald Trump's musical career was something I wasn't aware of, but it shouldn't have surprised me. He was into so many dubious schemes. Suits and ties, vodka, steaks, water, education, politics, charitable foundations. Of course music was one more thing he believed himself capable of. And he no doubt thought he was terrific at it. One of the top vocalists. Of this or any other musical era. Everyone was talking about it.

And then it was time for him to perform. One of the cast members introduced him after the commercial break, just like they do. "Ladies and gentlemen, Donald Trump."

The lights went up and there he was, standing at the mic, dressed in one of Elvis Presley's sequined white jumpsuits. The music started and he began to sing, a surprisingly passable version of Elvis's 1969 hit "Suspicious Minds."

We're caught in a trap
I can't walk out
Because I love you too much, baby
Why can't you see
What you're doing to me
When you don't believe a word I say?
We can't go on together
With suspicious minds (suspicious minds)
And we can't build our dreams
On suspicious minds
So, if an old friend I know
Stops by to say hello
Would I still see suspicion in your eyes?
Here we go again
Asking where I've been
You can't see the tears are real
I'm crying (Yes, I'm crying)
We can't go on together
With suspicious minds (suspicious minds)
And we can't build our dreams
On suspicious minds
Oh, let our love survive
Or dry the tears from your eyes
Let's don't let a good thing die
When, honey, you know
I've never lied to you
Mmm, yeah, yeah
We're caught in a trap
I can't walk out...

31 Days of Dread--Day 30

The Mist; 2007; written by Frank Darabont, based on the novel by Stephen King; directed by Frank Darabont

There are gorier movies out there than The Mist. More violent ones, too. Maybe even more terrifying. But there aren't too many with its powerful ending, one which manages to punch well below the belt and grab you by the throat at the same time.

Following a severe storm, David Drayton (played by Thomas Jane) and his young son find themselves trapped in a supermarket with several other townspeople after a strange mist envelops the store. It's soon revealed there's "something in the mist"--untold numbers of somethings, actually, with teeth and claws and wings and tentacles.

The only thing more dangerous than the Lovecraftian creatures outside the store are the increasingly desperate townspeople under siege inside it, foremost among them a local religious zealot with messianic ambitions (Marcia Gay Harden). With the fight for survival split more or less evenly between two fronts, tensions soon rise and everyone is forced to take a side. Eventually the choice to stay and die or leave and take your chances can't be put off any longer.

Shot in a roving, hand-held style, the film has at times a documentary feel that makes the conflicts and shocks that much more immediate. Darabont has said he was inspired by horror B-movies of the 1950s and '60s, and his black-and-white version (available on several versions of the DVD) is worth seeking out, especially if you've already seen it in color.

Now about that ending. Readers of this blog--and the film reviews that occasionally appear in it--may recall I have an issue with Hollywood's insistence on a happy ending. That's something The Mist doesn't suffer from. I won't say more, in case you haven't seen it. And if you have, you already know it elevates The Mist from merely good to one of the all-time greats.

The Mist is available for streaming rental.

Monday, October 29, 2018

31 Days of Dread--Day 29

Squirm; 1976; written and directed by Jeff Lieberman

There are so many ways this low-budget horror flick justifies its title. 

First there's the run-down location and settings of Port Wentworth, Georgia, a place so backwoods it makes Petticoat Junction look cosmopolitan. Then there are the slightly awkward performances and southern accents (real or put-on) that are thicker than blackstrap molasses. And let's not forget the sight of all those worms, real worms most of the time, with writhing legs, shot in excruciating close-ups and threatening to overrun it all.

One of several "natural horror" films released by American Internal Pictures during the 1970s (along with Frogs, Food of the Gods and Empire of the Ants) Squirm takes place after an especially strong thunderstorm has downed several power lines, sending hordes of flesh-eating worms to the surface. 

It takes a guy from the big city, played by Don Scardino, to realize something's wrong. From the start, his round geek glasses--along with that famous order of an egg cream--mark him as an outsider, and he's subjected to small-town hostility from almost everyone he meets. You have to wonder which is the bigger threat: the worms or a gang of locals organizing a posse to kick his ass all the way back to New York City. 

Compared to contemporary pacing, Squirm takes some time getting up to speed. But once it reaches take-off velocity it's pretty much relentless, presenting one grisly scene after another. Worms pop up everywhere, spilling out of windows and air vents, and even filling up entire rooms. Past the halfway point, once they've already made a couple appearances, you half expect them to show up just about everywhere, which only adds to the skin-crawling effect.

All the film's low-budget markers--grainy cinematography, a cheesy synth score and an even cheesier "love theme" that plays over the end credits, the clunky script with its casual view of sexism and physical abuse--make the end result seem uncomfortably real, more raw than something we should be watching. Combine that with some early but effective makeup work from Rick Baker (who would go on to win an Oscar for An American Werewolf in London just five years later) and you've got something that should trigger anyone's vermiphobia. 

Squirm is available on Amazon Prime and streaming rental.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

31 Days of Dread--Day 28

Jacob's Ladder; 1990; written by Bruce Joel Rubin; directed by Adrian Lyne

Jacob Singer is literally having a hell of a time.

Played by a young and vulnerable-looking Tim Robbins, Singer is a wounded Vietnam vet and postal worker living in New York City. If those two things weren't bad enough, he finds himself lost in a creepy subway, attending a party where a demon seems to ravage his girlfriend, suffering from a strange fever that brings on terrifying hallucinations, haunted by memories of another life and family, part of a group of men who were possibly given an experimental drug without their knowledge, and taken to a hospital filled with monstrosities and operated on without anesthesia. In between, reality seems to be cracking open all around him, spilling out its rotten insides.

What truly makes this slippery tale worth watching almost thirty years after its release is the vision of director Adrian Lyne. Made before anyone had ever heard of CGI, the special effects of Jacob's Ladder were all practical and created "in camera," with no post-production work to sweeten them. As a result, they pack a visceral punch, delivered from a fist with real blood on its knuckles and dirt beneath its nails.

Lyne cited the artwork of Francis Bacon as an inspiration for Jacob's Ladder, and the film went on to influence the Silent Hill video game and film franchises. It shouldn't come as a surprise that a remake is in the works for 2019; it will be interesting to see what the filmmakers do in an effort to surpass the original's power.

Jacob's Ladder is available on Amazon Prime (hurry!--only until November 1) and streaming rental.

Saturday, October 27, 2018

31 Days of Dread--Day 27

From Beyond; 1986; written by Dennis Paoli, adapted by Brian Yuzna & Dennis Paoli & Stuart Gordon, from a story by H.P. Lovecraft; directed by Stuart Gordon

Of the two H.P. Lovecraft adaptations Stuart Gordon directed in the mid-1980s, the one everybody seems to remember is Re-Animator. Maybe because getting head from a severed head really makes an impression on people. But for my VHS rental dollar, From Beyond was always the more enjoyable film.

When two scientists create a machine called a Resonator, which allows those within its range to perceive a reality beyond our own, things go wildly wrong and one, Dr. Edward Pretorius, is killed. The other, Dr. Crawford Tillinghast, is taken to a mental hospital where he meets Dr. Katherine McMichaels. When she discovers that Tillinghast's pineal gland is enlarged due to the effects of the Resonator, she returns with him to the lab in order to check out his story. Eventually she, too, falls under the machine's infernal spell and madness ensues.

Trust me, it plays a whole lot better and more smoothly than it reads.

From Beyond came out the year before Hellraiser, and preceded a lot of its story elements and themes. Both feature mechanisms that open the door to other dimensions. Within them are (former) humans whose experiences there have warped their physical bodies, and who return to our plane extolling all the other-worldly sensual pleasures to be had. And both feature some extreme body horror effects that were A-game at the time and still have the power to make you go "Eww."

Why From Beyond isn't better known and more celebrated is one of those cinematic mysteries that may never be solved. But it's possible that oversight is being corrected. After thirty-plus years in relative obscurity the film seems to be finding a new audience and greater critical appreciation. There's no sense in waiting any longer to see it, for the first time or again.

From Beyond is available on streaming rental.

Friday, October 26, 2018

31 Days of Dread--Day 26

It Comes at Night; 2017; written and directed by Trey Edward Shults

I suspect It Comes at Night was given that name primarily for marketing purposes. It makes for a compelling title, a great-looking poster, and the trailer does a fine job of giving the impression that something dangerous is out there, pressing against all the doors and windows.

However, a more accurate title might be It Gets Inside. Because what's out there isn't limited to the night hours. It can get inside at any time. Inside a secluded house deep in the woods. Inside the characters' heads, leading them to lie and steal and murder in order to protect their families. And inside their bodies, causing a terrifying illness that's already killed most of the population.

But that criticism aside, It Comes at Night is still a powerful and moving post-apocalyptic thriller that preys on the minds of both its characters and viewers. The story centers on a family who's managed to survive a global pandemic only by adhering to a strict set of rules, and the second family they reluctantly take in after one of its members shows up at their door.

Of course, if the title was It Gets Inside, that would probably be a bit of a spoiler. Because eventually the fragile trust between the two groups dissolves, their tight security measures fail, and the deadly pathogen they've been trying so desperately to avoid eventually claims them all.

To anyone who watches these kinds of movies that shouldn't really come as much of a surprise. The bad thing--monster, slasher, demon, you name it--always manages to break past all defenses and wreak some havoc. That's pretty much the whole point. 

The question is, does the bad thing in the story also manage to get inside you? And in It Comes at Night, it does.

It Comes at Night is available on Amazon Prime and streaming rental.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

31 Days of Dread--Day 25

The Cured; 2017; written and directed by David Freyne

Hordes of zombie films (and books and television shows and comics) have spread unchecked since George Romero unleashed the first bunch in 1968's Night of the Living Dead. With a few exceptions (1985's Return of the Living Dead, 2002's 28 Days Later, and 2013's World War Z to a lesser extent) the formula has remained pretty much untouched: something creates zombies, zombies run rampant, survivors keep trying to survive, rinse and repeat.

The Cured, however, is unique, and possibly the world's first post-zombie film. Set in Northern Ireland after a cure for the "Maze virus" has been found, it explores what happens when the formerly infected return to what's left of their friends and family. Complicating matters is that the cured remember everything that happened while under the virus's control, each bite and kill, leaving them with an especially grievous form of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Ellen Page stars as a mother of a small boy who's agreed to take in her cured brother-in-law, played by Sam Keeley. As he tries to reintegrate after four years of infection, he finds the world has become suspicious and often openly hostile to the cured. Echoes with the aftermath of the Irish Civil War, and the AIDS crisis to a lesser extent, are not incidental. In fact, they're kind of impossible to miss.

This isn't to say The Cured comes off as a cross between your average zombie flick and NPR's Morning Edition. (Would that make it Mourning Edition?) There's plenty of rising tension as the characters grapple with each other while the threat of another wave of infections grows, and plenty of zombie action once both sources of conflict reach their inevitable boiling points. 

But it's handled with a degree of intelligence and sensitivity that's new to the genre, making it a zombie film with... brains.

The Cured is available on streaming rental.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

31 Days of Dread--Day 24

A Dark Song; 2017; written and directed by Liam Gavin

Grief may be the most terrifying emotion--the most terrifying experience--known to humankind. The pain and darkness are so profound, we instinctively turn away from imagining them. Worse, once grief has us in its clutches, the desire to find some relief from it, no matter how short-lived, can drive us to do things that are likewise unimaginable.

That's the truth beating at the heart of A Dark Song, in which a mother whose child has recently died hires a practitioner of dark magic to bring that child back, if only for a stolen moment. What follows, in an old, empty house in the middle of Irish nowhere, is a months-long ordeal of rites so physically and emotionally punishing they nearly match grief's suffering. 

As the mother, Catherine Walker is equal parts determined and skeptical. At times she's committed to seeing the hellish process through no matter what; at others she's caught in doubt, unsure if the man she's hired is more interested in helping or torturing her. Steve Oram strikes just the right balance as the occultist. Beneath his ordinary appearance he's by turns sympathetic, callous and often terrifying in his demands. Occasionally what he requires of both Walker and himself begins to resemble the dynamics of an unhealthy sadomasochistic relationship.

The work of calling back a child from the dead is treated as a process, with each separate stage involving new levels of mystery and danger, with consequences both supernatural and emotional. It takes its time building up to a shocking end, but it's definitely time well spent.

A Dark Song is available on Netflix and streaming rental.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Creature Feature

You can't see the words "headless chicken monster" in your daily news feed and just scroll past it. Not if you've got a taste for the strange and unusual. Or chicken.

So let me start by giving credit to whatever (probably underpaid) scribe came up with that catchy descriptor for this deep-sea creature that was recently captured on video east of Antarctica. If the goal was to get people to click--and learn a little bit about marine biology in the bargain--it undoubtedly got the job done. At least it worked on me.

Unfortunately, as is so often the case in these matters, reality doesn't quite live up to the hype. The headless chicken monster--can't you just see those words splashed across a 1950s-era monster movie poster? Someone with Photoshop skillz needs to get on that--is a variant of the sea cucumber. Enypniastes eximia, to be exact.

Sea cucumbers in general aren't exactly Nature's cuddliest critters. Aside from resembling fat worms or short snakes, occasionally adorned with spiky protuberances that can cause them to look like Satan's own sex toys, they also possess what Wikipedia tastefully refers to as "often spectacular defense systems." For the most graphic demonstration of this, just Google "sea cucumber" and "Jackass." I'll wait right here.

So yeah, they definitely put the "cum" in "cucumber." And if that weren't bad enough, that stuff is ejected from their anus. Taken together, these two facts make a strong case for the natural world having a sense of humor more or less comparable to that of a 14-year-old boy. Or your average Jackass star.

Oh, and did I mention sea cucumbers are used as food and medicine in certain parts of the world? China and Japan, I'm looking at you. With what the cool kids call "stank face."

They--experts on these things, in this case--say we know more about outer space than the depths of the ocean, and the headless chicken monster seems to be proof of that. 

There's no telling if anyone will be jacking it off any time soon, or there's any future for it as either an edible or medicinal product. But watching it swim and wobble around in the video above, it certainly does seem to have a promising career as a star in my nightmares. 

31 Days of Dread--Day 23

Berberian Sound Studio; 2012; written and directed by Peter Strickland

I once had a friend who worked in the film industry and passed along this surprising bit of advice: "In film the image quality matters, but the sound quality matters even more."

Berberian Sound Studio makes that same point in a most unsettling and entertaining way. It's a horror film about a horror film, in which the sound of what's happening on screen takes precedence over the sight. Though bodies are tortured and splattered and ripped apart and all other manners of mayhem occur, we only ever hear it, often in the most stomach-churning detail.

Toby Jones plays a British sound editor named Gilderoy, whose well-received documentary on birds has led to a job on an Italian film he believes is about horses. And it is, nominally speaking. Because The Equestrian Vortex is a 1970s giallo flick about witchcraft at an all-girls' riding school--something akin to Suspiria set in the stables.

The clash between Gilderoy's gentle nature, the seedy oddballs completing the film's post-production, and the blood-soaked style of The Equestrian Vortex puts the mild-mannered sound editor at odds with everyone and everything around him. As the scenes he's working on become ever more gruesome, his sense of reality begins first to stretch, and then to tear itself to shreds.

Along the way viewers are treated to some truly astounding set pieces that celebrate the artists who work behind the scenes in order to make those scenes so successful. There's one in particular, in which an actress gives voice to a witch rising from her grave, that will have you wondering whether to laugh or scream, or do both at the same time--a feat which the actress accomplishes quite well. 

However, if you're looking (or hoping) for giallo-style gore--which Berberian pays loving tribute to--you're likely to be disappointed. One of the film's great achievements (no doubt the result of budgetary constraints) is that you never see a single drop of blood. Unless, of course, you've got a very vivid imagination.

Berberian Sound Studio is available on Hulu and streaming rental.

Monday, October 22, 2018

31 Days of Dread--Day 22

The Nightmare; 2015; directed by Rodney Ascher

Documentary director Rodney Ascher performs this wonderful cinematic trick where he can infuse even the most banal topic with a palpable sense of dread. 

His first film, the short-subject The S From Hell, explored the evil inherent in Screen Gems' mid-century animated logo. And for his second trick, the brilliant Room 237, he built a convincing maze of twisted logic from the theories surrounding Stanley Kubrick's version of The Shining.

So imagine what he might do with subject matter that's legitimately frightening on its own?

In The Nightmare, Ascher uses a combination of first-person interviews, dramatic re-enactments, computer animation and existing footage to explore the phenomenon of sleep paralysis, or night terrors.

The result is a film that steadily develops a creeping sense of anxiety, and releases a series of jump scares that are even more effective due to the fact that you never see them coming. It makes for a terrifically good watch, as horror films go.

And then, once it's over, it pulls off a second, even more impressive feat: it follows you to your bedroom, and joins you beneath the sheets, and wraps its cold arm around your waist.

The Nightmare is available on Netflix and streaming rental.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

31 Days of Dread--Day 21

The Cell; 2000; written by Mark Protosevich; directed by Tarsem Singh

I don't know why Tarsem Singh hasn't made another film that even comes close to his feature debut.

On its surface, The Cell is a serial-killer police procedural. The somewhat improbable cast stars Jennifer Lopez as as a child psychologist, Vince Vaughn as a detective, and Vincent D'Onofrio as the brilliantly twisted killer who's constructed an elaborate puzzle for the other two to solve before he claims his next victim.

But just beneath that surface is a science-fiction thriller about a technology that enables two or more people to share the same subconscious reality. Only it comes with a dangerous caveat: if you think something's real, it can have the same effect as reality, including the ability to kill you.

And still further down, there's the gorgeous and lurid heart of The Cell, a series of stunning visuals and bizarre set pieces unlike anything seen before or since--a brilliantly executed mix of Joel-Peter Witkin's grave-dusty S&M and David LaChapelle's high-sheen glamour. They make even the strangest stuff from the Davids Cronenberg, Fincher and Lynch look unimaginative in comparison.

Singh got his start with commercials and music videos (his work for R.E.M.'s "Losing My Religion" was especially feted) and has gone on to direct Immortals, Mirror Mirror and NBC's series Emerald City. But none of his subsequent work has matched The Cell for its wealth of visual invention.

It's been 18 years since Tarsem Singh has let his imagination run wild, and that's too long. One of the premium channels needs to give him a blank check and the promise of creative control.

The Cell is available on Amazon Prime and streaming rental.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

31 Days of Dread--Day 20

Circle; 2015; written and directed by Aaron Hann and Mario Miscione

Circle is one of those films in which the less you know about it ahead of time, the more you'll enjoy it.

Seriously. Stop reading right now, pull it up on Netflix, and thank me later.

No? Okay. Here's a bit more info.

Circle is an incredibly tense science fiction thriller in which 50 strangers find themselves playing a hellish "game"--though game is probably the wrong word for the life and death competition they engage in. 

This simple premise allows the filmmakers to deftly address some pretty heavy topics. Racism, sexism, ageism, classicism, homophobia, crime, punishment, and the dirty politics of survival are all laid bare and pretty much rubbed raw.

That might make Circle sound a bit preachy, though it's anything but. The film is a fleet 87 minutes, and chances are you won't relax during a single one. The talented cast delivers some amazing performances, and the fact that they're all unknowns only increases the film's sense of realism and anxiety.

Still not convinced? Then do me a favor. Watch just the first three minutes, and see if you can turn it off.

Circle is available on Netflix and streaming rental.

Friday, October 19, 2018

31 Days of Dread--Day 19

Cloverfield, 2008; written by Drew Goddard; directed by Matt Reeves

This is the film that kicked off a three-part franchise (and counting, some of which have been more successful than others), caused audiences to complain about motion sickness and inspired critics to draw comparisons to the trauma of 9/11.

And it's worthy of all that. Still.

The story should be familiar to anyone who's seen at least one Japanese city reduced to rubble by an atomic-era monster. Only this update sets the action in New York City and employs the found-footage technique that still hadn't been done to death by 2008.

After ten years, Cloverfield hasn't lost its ability to thrill, surprise and even shock. (Also, deliver the occasional bit of vertigo, even on a contemporary flat-screen.) Especially during the last 15 minutes or so, which boldly eschew Hollywood's insistence on a happy ending despite all the odds and instead go right where they've been going all along. 

Cloverfield is available on streaming rental.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

31 Days of Dread--Day 18

Under the Skin; 2013; written by Walter Campbell & Jonathan Glazer, based on the novel by Michel Faber; directed by Jonathan Glazer

Under the Skin is, pardon the pun, a wholly alien experience. From the opening moments--a series of 2001-like shots, set to what sounds like a woman repeating fragments of words over an anxious string orchestra--it's clear we've entered an unfamiliar world.

The loosely jointed story follows an extra-terrestrial, played by a vacant and dead-eyed Scarlett Johansson, who preys upon men in Glasgow. With each successive capture she seems to understand a bit more what she is and exactly what it is she's doing, until the tables are finally turned in a scene of eerie and somber beauty.

The film's deliberate pace and elliptical style isn't for everyone. Fans of David Lynch and Stanley Kubrick will likely feel most at home.

But even those who prefer straight-ahead thrillers will walk away with some unforgettable visuals stuck in their heads. The oily black pool where Johansson's targets shrivel and collapse. The moment a naked Johansson brings a lamp close to her body and reacts with disgust at what she finds. The alien being, stripped bare and defenseless, crouched in a snowy woods.

Under the Skin is available on Netflix, Amazon Prime and streaming rental.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

31 Days of Dread--Day 17

Altered States; 1980; written by Paddy Chayefsky as Sidney Aaron, based on his novel; directed by Ken Russell

There was a time, quite some time ago, when Altered States was the preferred stoner/trippy movie on college campuses.

Then time passed, as it always does, and the film's mix of drug-fueled intellectualizing and grainy special effects caused it to fall out of favor and be replaced by The Wall and Blade Runner and Brazil. (All worthy watches, by the way, but none of which made this list.)

So why seek this little gem out and pay a few bucks to watch it?

A young William Hurt for starters, making his film debut and cementing his heart-throb status at the same time. An electrifying script by Paddy Chayefsky (of Network fame, yet another worthy watch), which concerns a brilliant psychologist whose experiments on himself with hallucinogenic drugs and isolation tanks go several steps too far and end up breaking the universe. And Ken Russell's direction, which gleefully plunges the viewer headlong into this jacked-up crack-up with no apologies whatsoever.

Oh, and then there are those grainy special effects, low-res cinematic nightmares that come at you fast and furious, and still carry a potent psychosexual Freudian charge.

Of course, the whole thing eventually goes off the rails. Especially at the end, when Hurt and his co-star, Blair Brown, have to reassemble their deconstructing selves using only the power of love.

But then, that's also a big part of the charm, considering that the whole film is essentially about going off the rails.

Altered States is available on streaming rental.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

31 Days of Dread--Day 16

The Endless; 2017; written by Justin Benson; directed by Justin Benson and Aaron Moorehead

There's a mystery at the center of The Endless, one that loops and circles around on itself and might well keep viewers returning to it, just like the film's main characters.

Justin Benson and Aaron Moorehead play brothers--conveniently named Justin and Aaron--who escaped a "UFO death cult" ten years ago. Since then, their aimless lives have been stuck on repeat. Until the day a videotape from the group arrives in the mail, and Aaron convinces Justin to return for "closure."

They receive a warm welcome and find everyone no older than the day they left. When Justin expresses surprise at this the leader smiles ambiguously and says, "We're always here."

Strange events soon begin piling up. The group plays tug of war with a rope that rises into the night sky. Characters mysteriously leave and return. Two moons appear and a third is promised, which will herald something called "the ascension." Each causes the brothers--and viewers--to question what's real and what's attributable to the cult's influence.

Benson and Moorehead are known as purveyors of smart, low-budget horror, and The Endless is yet another entry in a career filling up with them. It proves that a big idea, handled well, can beat a big budget.

The Endless is available on Netflix, Amazon Prime and streaming rental.

Monday, October 15, 2018

31 Days of Dread--Day 15

Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles; 2011; written by Jon Foy and Colin Smith; directed by Jon Foy

If the name of this film alone isn't enough to slow you down and ask, "What the...?" maybe you're moving too fast.

Starting in the 1980s hundreds of enigmatic handmade tiles began appearing on the streets of Philadelphia, the United States and eventually South America. Most displayed a variation of the message TOYNBEE IDEA IN MOVIE 2001 RESURRECT DEAD ON PLANET JUPITER.

You might dismiss a message like that as lunatic ravings. But isn't it more fun, especially at this time of year, to lend it just a bit of credence and see where it leads? As Justin Duerr, the man at the center of the film says, "When you start to realize that it's unusual and strange and unexplainable, it's like waking up from this dream."

The story of one man's obsession with another man's obsession, Resurrect Dead explores the shadows of underground culture, secret societies, America's crumbling railroads, a giant Chilean telescope, short wave radio broadcasts, 9/11 and arcane scientific theories about bringing dead molecules back to life. In doing so, it manages to tickle that part of your brain that wonders what else might be going on beneath the surface of our ordinary world. Or beyond it.

Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles is available on Amazon Prime and streaming rental.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

31 Days of Dread--Day 14

Irreversible; 2002; written and directed by Gaspar NoƩ

Instead of falling toward the middle of this list, Irreversible could well be its final entry. Anyone who's seen it (or failed to make it to the end) already understands why.

A tale of gruesome sexual violence and its equally violent revenge, Irreversible employs two techniques that transport it from mere exploitation into the realm of art.

The first is a reverse-chronological structure that throws viewers headfirst into the chaotic aftermath of a vicious attack, then works its way back, scene by scene, to demonstrate just how helpless the characters were against their fates.

The second is stunning camera work that both disorients and thrusts viewers into the action. Shot with a single camera in a roving and near-weightless style, it makes Irreversible feel not so much filmed as something that's happening all around you, like a dream. Or a nightmare.

And make no mistake, Irreversible is a nightmare. From the opening frames, which show the final credits, it's apparent this is a film that won't be respecting any rules. No one who might be triggered by scenes of extreme violence and punishing sexual assault should hazard watching it. Even the most hardened veterans of torture porn will find themselves flinching.

But. If you can somehow make it past the brutal rape scene at the story's center, you'll eventually find yourself at home with a happy couple, in the midst of a romantic interlude, on a beautiful summer's day, when this tragic tale all began. Despite everything it's (rightfully) notorious for, this is the true power of Irreversible: proof that heartbreak, and the despair that comes with knowing what might have been, are two of the most terrifying emotions there are.

Irreversible is available on Amazon Prime and streaming rental.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

31 Days of Dread--Day 13

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer; 1986; written by Richard Fire & John McNaughton; directed by John McNaughton

Thirty-plus years have only added to the air of grime and desperation that pervades Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. This is not a shortcoming, since it only serves to make this tale of a murderous drifter that much more brutal and disturbing.

Michael Rooker stars as Henry, who shares a dingy apartment with his prison pal, Otis, and his sister Becky, on the run from an ugly divorce. All three occupy society's lowest rungs and are doing what they can--and must--just to hang on.

If there's a fourth major character in the film, it's the city of Chicago itself, which appears to be in similarly bad shape. It's a city of perpetually cloudy skies, rusted-out cars, cheap diners and run-down gas stations, all of it captured in low-budget grainy images reminiscent of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

Henry's murderous impulses form a vortex at the story's center, one that soon pulls in the other two--Otis as an apprentice, Becky into a dark romance. To say that neither survives doesn't really give anything away. By the film's end, we understand that Henry's time in Chicago was just a stop along a bloody trail, one extending far behind and ahead of him.

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is available on Amazon Prime and streaming rental.

Friday, October 12, 2018

31 Days of Dread--Day 12

Manhunter; 1986; written by Thomas Harris and Michael Mann; directed by Michael Mann

Manhunter, based on Thomas Harris's novel Red Dragon, has very little in common with two other, more famous Thomas Harris adaptations, 1991's The Silence of the Lambs or 2002's Red Dragon.

And that's not a bad thing. Because thirty years after it was released to mixed (at best) reviews, Mann's version has since emerged as a hyper-stylized time capsule of the 1980s, a candy-colored kaleidoscope that makes both Silence and Red Dragon look somewhat, um... lifeless by comparison.

The dissonance between Manhunter's slick production and its tale of a police detective losing himself in a serial murder investigation makes the viewing experience that much more jarring and memorable. It's like seeing a human heart, still beating, under the glow of neon lights.

Manhunter is available on streaming rental.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

31 Days of Dread--Day 11

The Invitation; 2015; written by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi; directed by Karyn Kusama

There's a moment near the beginning of The Invitation that not only tees up everything that follows, but puts the audience on a razor's edge as well. I won't say what it is, because that would ruin the fun. And it's that element of suspense--and its eventual release--that makes The Invitation work so well.

The initial premise is simple enough. Following an absence of two years, a couple invites a group of friends to dinner at their Hollywood Hills home. But from there it gets more complicated and weirder.

Among the assembled is Logan Marshall-Green, the female host's ex-husband. From the moment he arrives things seem off. There's a missing guest. Two odd friends no one has met before. An awkward party game. And a self-actualization movement called The Invitation that the hosts really, really want to share with the others.

The need to observe social niceties as the evening heats up leads to some excruciating tension and shocking reversals. If I have any complaint about 
The Invitation, it's that the film does such an outstanding job of increasing the anxiety and encouraging your  imagination to run away with itself, that by the time things boil over it seems just a tiny bit anti-climatic. 

But only a little. Because then there's that final shot, with its helicopters overhead and dogs barking in the distance. It's so unanticipated and unnerving that you might not enjoy dinner at a friend's house for some time.

The Invitation is available on Netflix and streaming rental.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

31 Days of Dread--Day 10

Creep 2; 2017; written by Mark Duplass & Patrick Brice; directed by Patrick Brice 

In the original Creep, Mark Duplass played a man with terminal cancer who wants to make a "day in the life" documentary and plays next-level mind games with his unsuspecting videographer. 

In Creep 2, Mark Duplass plays a serial killer who wants to make a "day in the life" documentary and plays next-next-level mind games with his unsuspecting videographer. 

And so, given all that, you'd be perfectly within your rights to ask why in the hell Creep 2 is on this list. 

1. Because Duplass delivers an amazing performance. By turns charming, sinister and terrifying (sometimes all in the same scene) he navigates some treacherous emotional terrain without a stumble. 

2. Because his co-star, Desiree Akhavan, delivers an amazing performance as well. Not only does she refuse to be intimidated by the antics of a serial killer, she proves to be every bit his equal. 

3. Because together, Duplass and Akhavan are doubly amazing. Throughout the film they play a non-stop cat-and-mouse game--with each other, the audience, and the serial killer genre itself. It's genuinely thrilling to watch as their characters push each others' buttons and boundaries, keeping everything and everyone dangerously off balance, right up to the end. 

Creep 2 was one of the best times I've had watching a movie this year. And I saw A Star is Born this past weekend. 

Creep 2 is available on Netflix and streaming rental.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

31 Days of Dread--Day 9

Falling Down; 1993; written by Ebbe Roe Smith; directed by Joel Schumacher

Occasionally, what once passed for a conventional film when it was released can, with time, turn into something more than its creators intended. Deeper. Weirder. Scarier.

Marketed in 1993 as "the adventures of an ordinary man at war with the everyday world," today Falling Down reads more like "the adventures of a mediocre white man at war with everything he blames for taking away his privilege."

Michael Douglas stars as the aforementioned ordinary man. In his Eisenhower-era glasses and white shirt and tie, he looks like a refugee from what he surely considers "a better time." Beginning with the film's opening scene, it's clear to 2018 viewers he sees himself as someone done wrong by an out-of-control world. 

It's probably no accident that world includes lots of people of color: the kids on a school bus, a Korean convenience store owner, a group of Latino men and women. The list goes on. (To be fair, Douglas's character is often provoked, but he definitely makes matters worse and his reactions are grossly out of proportion. He also vents on some white people, including his terrified ex-wife, but only after he's dispatched several examples of the city's ethnic populations.)

However, it's when Douglas brings a duffel bag of guns to his war against perceived injustice that the film achieves its most shocking moments. Because we live in a world in which aggrieved men shoot up public spaces on the regular, what might have been intended as "stand up and cheer for the little guy" scenes in 1993 now come across as dangerously unhinged and deadly. You simply can't watch Douglas shooting up a fast-food joint and not think of how horribly wrong it could go, and has before.

To say about Falling Down that "they just don't make 'em like that any more" is an understatement. Twenty-five years later, they just couldn't--and wouldn't dare--make 'em like that today.

Falling Down is available for streaming rental.

Monday, October 8, 2018

31 Days of Dread--Day 8

Cropsey; 2009; written by Joshua Zeman; directed by Barbara Brancaccio and Joshua Zeman 

A documentary can be scarier than even the most vampire/zombie/demon/alien/slasher-infested fictional film. Because documentaries are, after all, based on facts. And that can mean the difference between something that's scary in a girl-don't-go-in-there! kind of way and something that makes a reasonably solid case for sleeping with all the lights on. Or not sleeping at all. 

Case in point, Cropsey, which has everything your favorite horror film has and more. Creepy old abandoned asylum with a dark history of atrocities? Check. Series of brutal murders terrorizing a tight-knit community? Check. Wild legends about an escaped mental patient responsible for the mayhem? Weird old guy who's finally arrested for the crimes? And the possibility that something still stalks the woods in search of new victims? Check, check and check. 

Plus, Cropsey's creeping mood of dread will not only crawl up and down your spine while you're watching it, but stay there for days (and yes, long nights) afterward. You won't forget the experience of watching it, even though you'll probably wish you could. 

 Cropsey is available on Amazon Prime and streaming rental.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

31 Days of Dread--Day 7

This is the End; 2013; written by Seth Rogan & Evan Goldberg; directed by Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogan

Do you really need me to tell you that This is the End is both laugh-out-loud scary and scream-out-loud funny? Or that sometimes it's the other way around?

Are you not already aware that it stars Seth Rogan, Jay Baruchel, Jonah Hill, James Franco, Craig Robinson and Danny McBride (plus dozens more) all playing themselves? Or that it involves an incredibly debauched party at Franco's house that goes horribly wrong when the apocalypse occurs, unleashing all manner of hell?

Have you somehow missed the fact that it's one of the smartest and funniest skewerings of Hollywood douch-baggery in years, if not ever? Or that it somehow also manages to be a sweet tribute to the power and joys of friendship? Has no one yet told you that it boasts some of the goriest special effects and the filthiest jokes anyone, anywhere has probably ever seen and heard?

No? Well, now you have a great reason to see This is the End for the first time. And if you already knew all of the above, now you've been reminded why it's worth seeing yet again.

Saturday, October 6, 2018

31 Days of Dread--Day 6

Zombieland; 2010; written by Rhett Reese & Paul Wernick; directed by Ruben Fleischer

The moment Jesse Eisenberg wistfully begins explaining that the #1 rule of surviving a zombie apocalypse is "cardio" (along with "beware of bathrooms," "limber up" and "double tap," among many others) it's pretty much clear this is a guy--and film--we're going to like.

Eisenberg plays a wryly self-aware nerd who's finally getting himself together as the world falls apart around him. Woody Harrelson provides the perfect foil, a good ole' boy with equal parts kick-ass menace and aw-shucks charisma. Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin round out the cast as two savvy sisters who first high-jack, then join, the road trip across a ruined Southwest in search of Twinkies and an amusement park named Playland, where Stone promises her younger sister there are no zombies. But of course, there are.

The relentlessly clever script is matched by equally energetic direction and performances. It's a trip you won't mind taking more than once. The first time for all the surface laughs and jump scares (and there are plenty of both), then again for all the smart details and witty asides.

Zombieland is available for streaming rental.

Friday, October 5, 2018

31 Days of Dread--Day 5

Tucker and Dale vs. Evil; 2010; written by Eli Craig & Morgan Jurgenson; directed by Eli Craig 

This film could be called Big-Hearted Hillbillies vs. Clueless Preppies (who in many ways represent the real evil here). But summarizing the concept that way would also minimize its many charms, most of which hinge on two delightful lead performances.

Alan Tudyk and Tyler Labine play lifelong friends Tucker and Dale, who've just purchased their dream a vacation home--actually a rundown cabin in the backwoods of West Virginia.

When Dale shyly attempts to talk to a young woman who's arrived with friends for a weekend of camping, he's rejected due to his appearance and demeanor. That initial misunderstanding sets into motion a series of increasingly ridiculous and gory catastrophes--some of them homages to classic horror films. Each time tragicomedy strikes, it's the direct results of the campers' inability to see past their own prejudices and into Tucker and Dale's sincerely good natures and intentions.

Underrated by audiences (but not critics) during its initial release, Tucker and Dale vs. Evil has since gained new relevance. Red-state viewers will appreciate the film's sympathetic treatment of its title characters. Blue state viewers should as well.

Tucker and Dale vs. Evil is available on Netflix(!) and streaming rental.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

31 Days of Dread--Day 4

Beyond the Gates; 2016; written by Jackson Stewart & Stephen Scarlata; directed by Jackson Stewart

Set your watches back. About thirty years or so. When movies--and a few novelty board games--were played on VHS. Horror films were lit in super-saturated shades of fuchsia and purple. Their stories might have been a bit creaky, but the blood-soaked special effects did their best to make up for it. 

That's the era and type of film Beyond the Gates hopes to honor, and mostly succeeds at. 

Stars Graham Skipper and Chase Williamson play two brothers--one slightly nerdy, the other somewhat ne'er-do-well--whose father has been missing for seven months and is presumed dead. They meet up to go through his nearly defunct video rental store, where they find the eponymous board game way, way back in the office.

They learn that the mystery of their father's disappearance can only be solved by playing the game. Which of course they shouldn't do. But of course doesn't stop them. And before you know it, one of their girlfriends is possessed, a weird gate has appeared in the basement, and there's heavily backlit fog all over the place. 

The film's indie pedigree provides both its charms and rough edges. The practical sets have a slightly claustrophobic feel and some of the game's challenges resolve themselves a bit too neatly. But what Beyond the Gates lacks in finesse it makes up for with enthusiasm and unpredictability.

And perhaps most important, it really does look and feel like something that was released direct-to-video, was forgotten for a few decades, and has just risen from the dead.

Beyond the Gates is available on Netflix and streaming rental.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

31 Days of Dread--Day 3

An American Werewolf in London; 1981; written and directed by John Landis

Werewolves invaded movie theaters in 1981, with the release of three lycanthrope-themed films including Wolfen and The Howling. But skip those two because the best of them, then and now, is John Landis's version.

David Naughton and Griffin Dunne play two college-age backpackers who cross paths with something vicious during a rainy night on the moors. Three weeks later Naughton wakes up in the hospital, only to learn that his friend Dunne is dead. (And definitely undead, too, as it turns out.) Though everyone swears the pair were attacked by an escaped lunatic, Naughton believes it was something else.

Striking the right balance between laughs and screams is a difficult feat, too often leading to something that's neither funny or scary. But An American Werewolf in London walks the tightrope without a misstep. There's even a sweet romance between Naughton and a nurse (played by Jennie Augutter) that contributes greatly to the story's touching end.

The film's can't-miss centerpiece is an impressive man-to-wolf transformation that shook audiences and critics at the time, earning it several well-deserved rewards. After more than 35 years the sequence is beginning to show its age, but is still remarkable given that none of the special effects or makeup (designed by Rick Baker) relied on CGI.

If you haven't seen An American Werewolf in London, now is the time to correct that gap. If you have, you already know this is a great time to enjoy it again.

An American Werewolf in London is available for streaming rental.

Monday, October 1, 2018

31 Days of Dread--Day 2

Sleepy Hollow; 1999; written by Kevin Yagher & Andrew Kevin Walker, based on The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving; directed by Tim Burton

Tim Burton brings Washington Irving's classic tale of post-Revolutionary War haunts to beautiful (after-)life, with Johnny Depp as Ichabod Crane and Christina Ricci as his love interest, Katrina Van Tassel.

Burton and his screenwriters take liberties with the story to increase its appeal to a more modern--and demanding--audience, but only fans of the original tale will quibble with the changes.

The result is a film that moves at a brisk gallop through sets and atmospheres that manage to be both gorgeous and gloomy at the same time. The entire thing looks like a series of Hudson School paintings with the brightness turned down fifty percent. Almost twenty years later, the production still looks as though it could be released next week.

There are just enough shudders and shocks to please horror fans, but not so many that fair ladies and gentlemen will find it objectionable.

Sleepy Hollow is available for streaming rental.

31 Days of Dread--Day 1

Goosebumps; 2015; written by Darren Lemke, Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski ; directed by Rob Letterman

I know what you're thinking. But Goosebumps is here because it's exactly like that scary movie you loved watching at sleepovers with your friends. Only funnier. And a bit smarter. And way more crazy.

It starts out as a boy-meets-girl, girl's-dad-turns-out-to-be-a-weird-dude tale, but switches gears when it's revealed that the girl's weird dad is none other than uber-best-selling young adult horror writer R.L. Stine. (Whose Goosebumps series the film is based on. Or a tribute to. Or licensed from. Or something.)

It turns out Stine's books--and the monsters in them--are actually real, and Stine--Jack Black, in some ways the creepiest thing in the movie--has protected his bajillions of tweenage readers by locking up his creatures in bound versions of his manuscripts. Of course, our hero accidentally lets them out, which is when all hell literally breaks loose in an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink CGI cavalcade.

Filled with more snark than actual scares, Goosebumps is the perfect start to the season. Turn off the lights and snuggle into your sleeping bag. Halloween is here.

Goosebumps is available for streaming rental.

Introducing “31 Days of Dread”

Only one of these films is on the list. Image by

In October, every night is a good reason to watch a scary movie.

And so, in celebration of the year's most frightening month, I'm unveiling a list of 31--count 'em!--movie recommendations. One per day, from now until Halloween.

But this isn't just any random list of recos. That would be far too simple. Instead, I came up with something that will be a bit more challenging for me, and I hope more enjoyable for you.

I'll start with easy stuff, films even fraidy cats can enjoy. Each day I'll work my way up the ladder. If you follow along, by the end of the month we should all be mainlining the really heavy stuff.

Oh--and (I hope) these won't be the same old same old flicks you'd find elsewhere this time of year. I'll be reaching back into the old, the off-beat, the overlooked and the obscure. 

Because no one who's found their way here needs to be told to put Jaws and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre on their to-be-watched list.